design charrette methods

Design Charrette

Get everyone on the team involved in interface design and be prepared to be surprised with the creativity you unleash. You are guaranteed to uncover better design ideas than if you did it all yourself.  

A design charrette (also known as a design studio) is a collaborative session where a group of individuals sketch solutions to a design problem. 

Useful for getting input and agreement from the whole team

For teams of software developers, the technique has several benefits:

  • Everyone on the team can propose new ideas, regardless of their graphical skills
  • The group moves from individual ideas to consensus
  • People gain understanding of why certain ideas may or may not work
  • Everyone feels like they were involved in design decisions

That feeling of investment in the UI will ensure that the whole team cares deeply about future design and usability work.  

Turn your ideas into designs

Choose a problem area to focus on, and provide some context (what is the scenario, who is the user). If you are doing this design charrette work as part of a design thinking exercise, it follows on nicely from the persona and scenario creation work the team will just have performed.

The charrette will take about one hour per problem area. If you’re not already in a design thinking workshop style environment, book a meeting and ask people to come to the meeting with a sketch of their idea. People should spend no more than an hour on their sketches, and normally much less time.

If you’re in a workshop environment, get people to spend ten to fifteen minutes sketching. The sketch can be UI, a comic book/storyboard, or anything else that gets an interaction idea across.

Artistic ability isn’t important. In fact, I prefer to give people thick marker pens and a limited creation time specifically to emphasize that we are looking for ideas, not artistry.

Once you have the sketches prepared, each individual takes turns to present their sketch to the group. The presentation should take about two minutes and should focus on the what and the why. It helps to describe the picture, storyboard or UI from a user’s perspective: “[Persona name] would [do this action] to [complete an objective from the scenario]. This solves the problem by [method].”

After each presentation, spend just a few minutes discussing the idea that was presented.

  • Critique the concept, not the drawing ability or individual
  • Point out areas that might be difficult to implement (maybe using a list of heuristics)
  • Highlight good ideas
  • Praise original thought – unusual suggestions improve the creativity of the final solution

Capture each item of feedback on a sticky note. Put the sticky notes with the sketch, and move on to the next person.

Once every idea has been presented and critiqued, put all the sketches up on the wall (with their sticky notes attached), grouped by similarity of ideas. Now everyone “dot votes” the concepts to determine the most suitable ideas.

At this point, you can choose one of three options:

  • Do another round of individual sketching or sketching in pairs, where each person or pair incorporates elements of everyone else’s ideas, followed by another group critique session. 
  • Create a sketch as a team that incorporates the best ideas (if you have a small team).
  • A smaller group can take all the good ideas and create a new summary sketch.

Make sure you record the input and output from the session, normally by taking digital photos of it. Some teams even do a brief video walkthrough summary narrating all of the ideas. Even if you don’t use all the ideas immediately, some may be worth revisiting in the future. 

Output isn’t supposed to be a finished UI. Instead, it documents the key elements of the interaction so that team members can agree on what it is they’ll be building to resolve the initial problem. UI design happens in the next step – paper prototyping.

A technique with a very creative history

horse-drawn royal coach in London

Design charrettes have long been a tool for architects and urban planners. In fact, the term supposedly originates from 19th century student architects at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who would frantically collaborate on and critique each other’s homework in the carriage (charrette) on their way to school.